The Moon, Or The Most Epic Road Trip Ever

“Three things cannot be long hidden:
The sun, the moon, and the truth.”
— Buddha

1460964861782286914Greetings from Luna — weather’s fine!

NASA just released 8,400 high-quality pictures of the Apollo moon missions, and they’re fantastic — including dozens of angles and perspectives we’ve never seen before.

In a way, a lot of them remind me of road trip photos I took during one particular epic journey to a renaissance festival in ‘02 — here are my friends checking the map, posing with ridiculous roadside attractions, checking the oil, setting up the tent at the campsite.

The camera that took some of those shots. Drooool.

Only this was pretty much the most epic road trip ever, and our road-tripping friends are shaving on the moon lander, setting up scientific equipment, making faces for the camera, looking out at Earthrise, adjusting the American flag, looking out towards the endless depths of space. I got to see some of the Hasselblads used to make these photos while at the Air & Space Museum Annex in Chantilly, Va., which was a pretty killer moment for this inveterate camera geek.

FullSizeRender(7)Your editor, checking things off the bucket list. Are space selfies > pope selfies? Let’s find out!

Seeing these Apollo photos, in all their road-trip realness, makes me incredibly excited for the exploration adventures to come.

Why? These photos are a wonderful reminder that when we go to space, we’re not bringing godlike heroes, morally spotless and propaganda-poster perfect. We’re bringing real people: joke-cracking, camera-mugging, smart, hopeful people. We’re not bringing robots; we’re bringing earthlings.

And it’s going to be a fantastic ride.

Check out the Apollo photo archive here.

Pope Francis Waves To Everybody (And He Means Everybody)

“In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life;
if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.” — Pope Francis, to Congress, 9/24/15

Selfie pope takes selfies.

If you’ve been reading Sacred Earthlings for a while, you may have guessed that, personally, I’m a Catholic. As such, I’ve been glued to coverage of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States in-between blogging, editing video and working on various other projects.

This is the first Pope I haven’t seen in person. Twenty years ago, I sat with the teeming masses huddled in a chilly Central Park for a Mass with Pope John Paul II, and in 2009 I covered Pope Benedict’s visit to New York for the wonderful Florida Catholic (while singing in the Mass choir at Yankee Stadium, which was an incredible musical experience).

This time, I wasn’t able to go, so the front lawn of my church here in Baltimore will have to do. They’ll be showing the Papal Mass in Philadephia outdoor-theater style (and, quite possibly, a Ravens game, too, but, hey, this is Baltimore. This is how we roll.)

Like many Catholics, I’m never going to get tired of the Pope selfie.

One of the things I wish non-Catholics could sometimes understand about Mass is the unifying effect it has on congregations — especially when you’re in a mass-Mass situation, when you’re freezing or baking or waiting in a line to get in for what seems like a hundred years. The force of a thousand people saying the same responses, of thousands of voices lifted in song… it’s wildly cool, especially when you take your eyes off the guy in white for a little while and look around you. Yes, around you are thousands of other Catholics, and you realize that they don’t all look like you. Some are different colors, different races, different ages. Some are conservative, some are liberal, some are proud to be Catholic, some would rather be Pastafarian. Everyone’s in it for the same exact purpose: to glorify God.

Going to a normal Monday Mass at your average homogenous Catholic parish is one thing. Experiencing that kind of massive, positive, Kingdom-of-God-like diversity is yet another. I remember being fourteen and having traveled with my mother to Guapi, a small jungle town on the Pacific Coast of Colombia. Guapi, accessible only by boat and plane, is as different from suburban upstate New York as you can get — yet, sitting at Sunday Mass in the tiny blue plaster church in the center of town, I didn’t need to be a fluent Spanish-speaker. I knew what was going on. I could participate. I was Catholic. I knew these people, and they knew me.

It helps during this time of upheaval and anger, when everyone is so frightened of the “other,” of the different, of the alien and the migrant and the stranger, that we have Pope Francis, a man who has embraced inclusivity and care for the poor as the essential Christian value which it is. It makes me proud to be Catholic. It makes me happy to see friends who have consistently rejected Christianity because of some factions’ intolerance and greed finally take a peek behind the curtain of Vatican gold, papal infalliblity and its unfortunate political history to see that the foundational struts of the Commandments and the Beatitudes are still right where they belong.

If you don’t believe me, go talk to some nuns. Now, nuns have it going on.

0435039609_14539167_8colNever. Ever. Getting tired. Of pope selfies.

I’m wondering if, thousands of years from now, someone Catholic will be able to get off their ship at, say, Europa Station or an Alpha Centauri spaceport, find the local Catholic church and feel right at home, even if they’re surrounded by amoeba-aliens, wierdo-brains from Craxus Prime and that one telepathic species from Planet X that only speaks through bananaphones, because that’s Catholicism.

As James Joyce wrote in Finnegans Wake, Catholicism can be described as “here comes everybody.” Right now, it means black and white, Hispanic and African, Thai and Japanese, Russian and French, English and Argentinian. Everybody.

Everybody has a different ring to it once you think of the future, and what our world has the potential to become — positive, as well as negative.

I wonder who the Pope of the future will be waving to.

(I’ll get my bananaphone).

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FICTION ALERT: “Heaven’s Touch” by Jason Sanford

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship,
stories are the thing we need most in the world.” -Philip Pullman

A simple roadway, or the very maw of Hell?

Hello, earthlings! Every so often, I take the six-hour trip from Baltimore to New York to visit my awesome parents. As anyone who has traversed I-95 and the Northeast’s main arteries knows, it’s a supremely boring trip, all trees and asphalt and hollering at other cars on the New Jersey Turnpike. At this point, I have it down to a science: coffee in Delaware, coffee in New Jersey, food at Menlo Park Mall, rubberneck to gawk at the New York skyline, get gas on Route 17, and listen to Escape Pod.

Ever since discovering Jei Marcade’s “Sounding The Fall” there last month, I’ve been pretty obsessed with listening to everything in their archives, and I was able to make a significant dent during last week’s trip up North. Nothing makes the sound of rubber on asphalt (and, in New Jersey, the sound of your voice screaming at other drivers) more interesting than turning your car into an audio theater and hearing a tale of a man whose prosthetic arm thinks it is a road, or the story of a soldier whose greatest weapons against the alien invasion are the lies he tells. (That story is spectacular, by the way.) Plus, there’s a lot there if you’re a follower of this blog and all of the thorny questions we love, so my advice to you today would be to get over there and begin experiencing the literary jackpot that is Escape Pod for yourself.

There are a lot of winners on Escape Pod, but this week, Sacred Earthlings is going to recommend you start with “Heaven’s Touch” by Jason Sanford. This story takes place on a comet hurtling towards the sun at a hundred thousand miles an hour, but the issues it brings up can be found right here on Earth today: questions of human destiny, religious martyrdom, faith versus science, the nature of the apocalypse and what it’s like to have faith in another person — and then have that faith betrayed. This is all set up against a Gravity-esque, very visual environmental thriller that pits the main character against time and incredible odds, and if the historical story of the Heaven’s Gate cult chilled you here, so will Sanford.

Witch trial by ordeal, courtesy Wikipedia.

What is destiny, after all? The Seekers’ religious tests here remind me a little of the unwinnable witchcraft examinations of old England and the early American colonies — if you drown in the lake, drawn down by stone tied to your ankles, you were innocent; if you live, you had the Devil’s favor and would be executed (but, of course, you wouldn’t live). Is destiny tied to the beliefs you had when you were young? Do our choices make us who we are, or our our lives already circumscribed by the family we’re born into, the place we grow up, and the science of the time? Is destiny in our own hands, and is making our own destiny even consonant with faith at all? If these questions interest you, you will get a lot out of this story.

You can find “Heaven’s Touch” by Jason Sanford here.

Short Film Alert: The Arborlight

“Garlic, herbs and rooster’s crow,
or far away the children go.”
— The Arborlight

thearborlightBrian Sutherland and Eden Campbell in “The Arborlight.”

How far would you go to save your child?

What would you do if you could not?

Those are the questions at the heart of The Arborlight, a breathtaking fairytale faith-versus-science story. Thomas and Liz’ young daughter, Elly, is fighting terminal tuberculosis, and although the doctor that attends to her is optimistic, Thomas grows more and more certain that Elly isn’t going to make it through. One day, while gathering flowers for his daughter’s bedside, he discovers a place that looks exactly like the fairy stories she loves so much, and Thomas finds he must choose between the approach of worldly medicine and the lure of something a little more magical…

The Arborlight is filmed beautifully using RED cameras, and despite the fairytale cottage and medieval costumes, Thomas and Liz feel like modern parents in a very modern struggle. Modern medicine has come a long way from the bloodletting and surgery-superstition that Thomas and Liz took as gospel truth, but people still die all the time from maladies doctors and medicines still can’t touch, and people still look for cures beyond what modern medicine can provide — miracle potions and mail-order cures, shamans and prayer healings. In a way, it’s tragic to watch Thomas and Liz make the decisions they make, because modern viewers know that they really have no choice, that the bloodletting provided by the plague doctor is ineffective and cruel, and that both choices are going to be heart-wrenching and unfair.

It reminds me of Anna Mayer‘s beautiful video above, about a young teen suffering from a condition that she knows is going to kill her, and the wrenching feeling about how unfair that is. I thought of Emily a lot while I watched The Arborlight. Modern society judges people who, upon not finding modern medicine sufficient, turn to a place of faith and unreason, but like Thomas and Liz tell us in The Arborlight, it’s a question we’re all going to have to face. Modern medicine will eventually fail. None of us will live forever. What are you going to do on the day? What will you believe? What would you turn to? Can any of us really even know until we, like Thomas, Elly and Liz, are facing it?

Do yourself a favor and watch The Arborlight, a film by Philip and Kevin Harvey, starring Brian Sutherland, Lisa Coronado, Eden Campbell and Russell Hodgkinson:

Watch a behind-the-scenes documentary on how they filmed using the Movi:

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Read the August Third Order story, “A Tomb For Demrick Fauston,” by Fred McGavran!

The Face Of God… In My Grilled Cheese

“To love another person is to see the face of God.”
— Les Miserables

maxresdefaultThe universe is having a good day at work.

The Hubble telescope has opened up the stars to our perusal and the mysteries of space for our faint human eyes.

Among these are a number of photos where people claim to see the face of God, or the breath of God, or evidence of God’s presence in the gases and stars of a nebula. This facial recognition is a phenomenon known as pareidolia, a phenomenon where the brain sees faces in places where faces aren’t supposed to be. Pareidolia is what you’re feeling when you see the face of Jesus or Mary in your grilled cheese, in the clouds or on the front of a car, when conspiracy theorists wave around pictures of Mars’ Cydonia crater, or — in one of the earliest reported instances of the phenomena — when you have your face turned towards the Man in the Moon. Pareidolia also exists in technology, when facial recognition software yanks out a hill formation or a funny sign and recognizes it as a set of human eyes, a nose and a mouth.

2Hi guys! Can I come? Huh, can I? Please?!

Here’s a video that shows pareidolia in action, with a creator that explains how he sees the “Face of God” in one particular stellar formation:

Why do we see faces everywhere? Well, it could be a function of our brains trying to make sense of information and sort things into familiar patterns. That’s where our expectations come in — artists might be more oriented towards seeing the Mona Lisa or Dali’s Scream in their breakfast and smile with the coincidence, while the religious might see Mary or the Buddha and see it as a miracle or proof of the supernatural. We’re certainly wired for it from an evolutionary perspective, according to Dr. Nouchine Hadjikhani of Harvard University — in their first hours of life, babies will fixate on other human faces, whether it’s a mother, a father, or a nurse.

Martian_face_vikingThe “Face on Mars,” which really only looks like that because of the way the sun was
facing at that moment. (We hope. We know what Doctor Who says about life on Mars…)

At Sacred Earthlings, we’ll propose that pareidolia exists because, in some way, we are looking for the face of God.

At any rate, pareidolia can be lucrative as well as scientifically interesting. Here are some instances where fake faces made their viewers a very real mint:

The Nun Bun, an image of Mother Teresa in a cinnamon bun at Nashville’s Bongo Java;
A 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich with the image of Mary;
A chicken nugget that resembles George Washington;
— and a house in Swansea, England that looks like Hitler.

As for pareidolia in everyday life, all you have to do is go outside and look out to the street.

Disney even made a movie about it. Beep beep!

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The Moon Is Squishy

“When I was a little kid, we only knew about our nine planets. Since then, we’ve
downgraded Pluto but have discovered that other solar systems and stars are common.
So life is probably quite prevalent.” — Buzz Aldrin

One of the best things about modern space exploration is listening to the tales from people who have been there — whether it’s homemade music videos from Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, hanging out with astronauts at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, or tweets from Buzz Aldrin, one of the astronauts to land on the moon. There are awe-inspiring tales. There are amazing tales. But yesterday’s was one of the cutest:

When kids ask me what it felt like to walk on the moon I say “squishy”! They are #GenerationMars. #Apollo11

Posted by Buzz Aldrin on Monday, July 20, 2015


The moon is squishy.

Like a Koosh ball toy, or a pan of congealed Jello, or a muffin.

Tell me that’s not the most amazing thing you’ve heard today.

Image: David Scott, astronaut, gives a salute during Apollo 15, CC license

Where Are The Aliens?

“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious.
If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
— Carl Sagan, Cosmos

When I was 14, I traveled to Colombia with my mother to visit some friends who lived in Medellin. They took us on a tour of the beautiful cities and even more beautiful countryside, where we stayed with some of the most amazing people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. The trip was a life-changer for me, and I’m not just saying that because I was introduced to the wonder of Colombiana and Manzana Postobon.

One night, on a back road a few hours from Manizales, Rafael pulled the Jeep over and had us get out and turn our eyes to the night sky. I had always heard the galaxy described as “The Milky Way,” but until that point I’d only seen the bare, few points of light one could identify over the light pollution in my northeastern American city. The Colombian sky was nothing like that. On this rural route, the old constellations were swallowed up by thousands and thousands of suns and stars, and winding through the center of it all was the white, cloudy, star-stuffed center of the galaxy. It was a dizzying kaleidoscope, an unbelievable treat — and I’ve never been back to a place remote enough to match it.

7383357864_3af8244f93_bThere were literally no words. It was like this, only… with more stars. A lot more stars.

If this were Roddenberry’s Star Trek, Banks’ Culture or even or even Alien Nation, we’d have plenty of company in those stars. Aliens with five legs, two heads, green blood and black-diamond eyes; intelligent amoebas that live in nitrogen-gylcerin oceans; beings of pure energy who long ago uploaded their consciousnesses into computers we can’t even begin to understand.

Yet, in reality, we are greeted with a deafening silence whenever we look up at the sky.

Where is everyone?

There are a number of theories on this, of course. One is that we are truly singular; the first, or the only, species to grow intelligent enough to break atmo. The second is that we are extremely common, but that due to the almost incomprehensible age of the universe, the thousands upon thousands of alien societies we’re expecting to find have already risen and died, or have not yet been born. A third is that there truly is some sort of warp-speed Galactic Federation out there, but that due to our backwater location — we’re on an undiscovered Pacific island, we’re an an isolated Amazon tribe — we have no idea it exists. And there’s even a fourth: that aliens are everywhere, but they’re so advanced they think we’re no better than monkeys or amoebas.

Here’s a really great analysis on the subject by Tim Urban on Quartz, originally published on WaitButWhy.

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Milky Way by Abdul Rahman, CC licensed

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Burial In Space

Death – the last sleep? No, it is the final awakening.
— Walter Scott

Today, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes will pass within 7,800 miles of Pluto, the planet he discovered.

Clyde_W._TombaughClyde Tombaugh in 1928 with a homemade telescope

The astronomer’s ashes are stored on New Horizons, the NASA space probe that on Tuesday will make its closest pass to the icy dwarf planet at the edge of our solar system. New Horizons will allow scientists to get their closest, most detailed look at the planet so far in history.

7956000730_3c0cf6b403_oGene Roddenberry with his creation.

Tombaugh isn’t the only human to be buried in the vast expanses space, even though our time there has been limited. The first space burial was Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, whose ashes were brought aboard the space shuttle Columbia. Others who have been buried in space include Timothy Leary, Eugene Shoemaker, L. Gordon Cooper and James Doohan. If you want your own ashes in space, there’s a private company, Celestis, that will provide that service.

Tombaugh, who lived from 1906 to 1997, was a researcher at the Lowell Observatory when he discovered Pluto. He went on to teach at the New Mexico State University until his retirement.

Godspeed, Mr. Tombaugh!

Writing Wednesday: Damon Knight’s “Creating Short Stories”

“One of the great rewards of a writer’s life is that it lets you read all the books you want to without feeling guilty.” – Damon Knight

Algis Budrys and Damon Knight with water guns at a Clarion BBQ.

One of the gems I picked up at last week’s trip to The Book Thing was author and editor Damon Knight’s excellent Creating Short Fiction. It’s a classic for a reason, full of interesting and necessary exercises for those of us who enjoy reading and writing short stories, and its Golden Age genesis is still quite applicable today. If you aspire to write short stories and have not read this book, you might just be metaphorically ray-gunning yourself in your lower appendages.

This is a book that speaks from experience. This book doesn’t come from the academic ivory tower — although Knight was a prolific and respected teacher — but from countless hours of sitting in front of a typewriter perfecting the craft. What’s more, it deals a lot with the walls, ceilings and plateaus many beginning and semipro writers hit at the beginning of their career; I recognized myself ten years ago on every page, and wished that I had come across it much earlier. You’ll find information about story invention, idea development, structuring a story, and mastering specific aspects of storytelling such as mood, audience manipulation and even how to get through tough times when you think your work is just about the most terrible thing on the market and you’ll never sell anything again.

16003788864_e8f16d6d1bThis is what I feel like my most recent story looks like. Yep.

During National Novel Writing Month, people talk about being a “planner” versus a “pantser” — i.e., people who write by the seat of their pants, and argue endlessly over which is better. I wasted a lot of years trying to be a “pantser” when what I really needed to be working on was developing the structural mastery that Knight presents in this book. At the same time, Knight warns the reader not to be overly obsessed with hitting each and every plot point where planned, and to let the story you’re writing surprise you sometimes. I think the whole point is to master those technical skills so that when you put on those writing pants, things like mood, tone, plot points and tent poles are second nature.

Basically: if you want to be a writer, write. Write smartly. (And read this book. Seriously.)

water guns, CC license by William Shunn
photo credit: charlie’s 1st book via photopin (license)
photo credit: Books via photopin (license)

Independence Day

“Mankind… that word should have new meaning for all of us today.”
— Independence Day

When I was a teenager, I loved this movie. Didn’t everyone? My best friend Megan and I must have seen it six or seven times at Mohawk Mall — back when Saturday matinees were four dollars and you could still smuggle in a Coke and chips in the pockets of the JNCO knockoffs you were rocking to impress the skater bois.

But, I digress.

This speech gets me every single time, despite Bill Pullman’s unrepentant (and appreciated) scenery-chewing. And, in the mire and muck of our increasingly fractured political feelings and religious drives, it’s one to remember. We’re all the same. We’re all human. We are all deserving of the same dignity and the same respect. Color should not divide us. Class should not divide us. Faith should not divide us. Because when the slimy black aliens show up to blow up our most sacred landmarks and send us running like ants from their fortresslike space-discs of doom, we’re going to need each other.

We need each other now.

Seriously, everyone. In the light of tonight’s fireworks, look around and see the beautiful diversity of our country and realize that it’s not something fear. It’s something that makes us better.

Happy Independence Day.

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Featured image: CC license stonedsmeagol@deviantart